How to make arguments good for your relationship
Top tips from experts on listening, learning and why it's important to keep a sense of humour when having a row
We've all been there. Ten minutes into a late-night argument with your partner and you can't even remember what you're arguing about. Or a romantic dinner for two descends into a cold war at the dining table because of a throwaway snippy comment.
The pace at which a couple's argument can escalate from "what will we eat for dinner" to "you never wash up after dinner" to "I think we have fundamentally differing views on housework and should therefore break up" can be breathtaking. Arguing with your partner can make you want to open the door of a moving car and step out, just to get away from it all. At its worst, it can make you doubt your relationship.
But arguments and conflict are a natural part of relationships, says Beth Fitzpatrick, supervisor at the Dublin-based marriage relationship counselling service AccessCounselling.ie.
Mary Johnston, co-ordinator of counselling services at the Catholic Marriage Care Service ACCORD, says couples who use their services rate communication problems like not listening, ignoring, criticising and insulting, as significant issues in their marriages and relationships. "It is unlikely that any couple will always have similar views on issues," says Johnston. "Having arguments does not mean your marriage or relationship is in trouble. Indeed, couples who do not argue do not necessarily have better-quality marriages and relationships than those who do argue."
Those couples who never seem to fight might not be as perfect as they appear, Fitzpatrick says. "Some people don't have conflicts but this can be as damaging as arguments – as those people can be passive-aggressive, thinking about how to get back at their partner, withholding sex, withdrawing into themselves."
But if arguing and its associated petty behaviours are so normal and common, how can you avoid them, or at least try to argue constructively?
Susan Quilliam, relationship coach and author of the book Stop Arguing, Start Talking, says the most important thing is to maintain goodwill towards each other.
"All the research does not suggest couples who argue are doomed to split up. People have differences and they sometimes lead to arguments. The underpinning between the couples who make it is goodwill. Are you out to win a row at all costs? Or are you out to work out the issue you're arguing about?"
Quilliam says there are argument strategies that couples can implement "to keep things nice" when they're having an argument.
"There are a whole lot of strategies and the biggest is negotiate. You can use humour, you should be prepared to say you're sorry, you can take time out, this is especially important for men as they can get overwrought and it takes about 20 minutes to calm down, so do take a timeout if you're getting upset. Don't blame the person; if you say "you're terrible" that's a lot less helpful than saying "when you do X, I feel bad. I would rather you did Y'".
Nursing grudges and letting rows fester is also a bad idea says Beth Fitzpatrick. "If a couple have a row, it's okay if they can clear the air, but when it's left unresolved that can breed contempt. If you're having the same argument over and over again – usually one person complains you don't pull your weight around the house, and the other will say that person is always moaning, you're both blaming. There should be no blame in arguments – it's all about resolving. It's very easy to blame each other and as long as you do that, you don't have to take responsibility for what you're doing yourself."
So what's the best way to resolve an argument? "The best way to solve conflict is to really listen and how you learn to do this is get one person to repeat what the other person has just said, to summarise it," says Fitzpatrick. "The most important thing in an argument is to listen without trying to 'fix' the other person and to think of what's good for the relationship. The relationship takes preference over what you each want individually."
Mary Johnston says the important thing to remember about arguments is there are constructive and destructive ways to conduct them.
So next time you lie awake, staring at the ceiling, plotting your partner's sad demise, chances are you just need to listen more.
accord.ie; accesscounselling.ie; susanquilliam.com